Last Wednesday, Todd Boyes escaped from the South Central Regional Jail in Charleston. Well, “escaped” is a bit strong. Don’t think of Shawshank Redemption or Escape from Alcatraz. Boyes just walked out the door.
State Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety Assistant Secretary Lawrence Messina said Boyes, who was dressed in khaki pants normally issued to jail trusties and a dark pullover, was allowed through three locked doors on his way to freedom.
That freedom was brief. He was recaptured four days later at Laredo, Texas, while trying to cross the Rio Grande River into Mexico. His mother, Robin Helton of Caldwell, Ohio, has been charged with driving him from West Virginia to Texas.
Messina says four prison guards have been suspended, pending the outcome of an investigation into Boyes escape, but known details are deeply troubling. He walked out Wednesday morning, but it wasn’t until the headcount Thursday evening that jail guards realized he was missing.
Messina says staffing problems at the jail may have contributed to the security breakdown. “We began this month with one in three correctional officer positions at the jail vacant,” he said. “We have a terrible problem with turnover and retaining experienced, qualified officers.”
This is not a new problem, and it’s not unique to South Central. We reported last September that there were 600 openings for correctional officers and most new hires leave within the first two years because of the stress or for better paying jobs.
The starting pay for correctional officers has increased to $24,664. The officers supplement their salaries with lots of overtime—some guards even sleep at the jail before reporting for another shift—but that is less than ideal. The end result is too many corrections officers who are inexperienced and fatigued.
State corrections officials and a few legislators have been warning for months now about the problems associated with overcrowding at regional jails and prisons and the shortage of trained corrections officers. But the state budget is tight, others in state government also need a pay raise and the public never wants to spend more money to house criminals.
What happened last week at South Central was the best worst scenario. Boyes was no minor offender. He was awaiting sentencing for carjacking and leading police on a chase before crashing that vehicle into a police cruiser. Fortunately, nobody got hurt during Boyes escape and he was caught before he could flee the country or ram another police cruiser.
We may not be so lucky next time.